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April 18, 2017

Student Group Says “Time to Shift Tactics” By Ditching Divestment Campaign

The Bowdoin Climate Action (BCA) group issued a statement last week explaining its decision to end its five year divestment campaign on the campus of Bowdoin College. Admitting defeat, the group’s co-leader says it is “time to shift the tactic” because, as we all know, divestment simply doesn’t work.

BCA’s website incites a call to action for colleges and pension funds to “divest from the fossil fuel industry, and reinvest in our future!” But reality has set in and the group is now singing a different tune. In an op-ed penned for the college’s newspaper, BCA shifts its focus from divesting the school’s $904 million endowment to putting pressure on state politicians to take action on climate change.

And it’s about time. Then Bowdoin President Barry Mills said in 2012 that the College would not divest in the foreseeable future. “At this point, we’re not prepared to commit to divest from fossil fuels,” Mills said. “[The endowment] is not something which at Bowdoin—or frankly any other institution—is subject to a large democratic effort as to how the money is invested.”

Fast forward to March 2017, and current President Clayton Rose told a room of Bowdoin alumni that divestment holds no “transformational value towards society” because it is “merely symbolic.” To Rose’s point, the college has stated previously that “approximately 1.4 percent of Bowdoin’s endowment is invested in [fossil fuels],” and “divesting would require a turnover of over 25 percent of the endowment.” That’s a big chunk of the school’s money to put at risk for the sake of methods that have proven ineffective.

Luckily, BCA has come to realize that divestment is an ineffective path forward, moving towards engagement over divestment. Numerous colleges and universities in New England have reached a similar conclusion, rejecting divestment as a costly strategy with no tangible impact on the environment. Middlebury President Ronald D. Liebowitz stated in 2013, for instance, that the college will not divest because of “the uncertainties and risks that divestment would create.” He said the endowment is a trust built up over a century of donations that exist for the benefit of the school’s student community and the board cannot get behind a campaign that presents no proven alternatives.

Just today, Mount Holyoake also announced its rejection, stating “divestment would sacrifice the strength and stability of our endowment without, we believe, having the desired impact on the fossil fuel industry. The move also would likely reduce the investment returns on the endowment and therefore distributions to the College. Putting our endowment at risk means putting our mission at risk.”

It’s clear schools are catching on that divestment is all cost and no gain for their liberal art missions.